ksmokler

Inside BookTour.com: A Q&A With Kevin Smokler

ksmoklerIn 2006, Kevin Smokler, the speaker and editor behind Bookmark Now, partnered with Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, and software developer Adam Goldstein to determine just how information about bookstore events and authors might be collected at an online hub. That central place turned out to be BookTour.com, which purports to make “finding when a favorite author is coming to your town as easy as checking the weather.”

This sunny mission got a much needed dose of radiation back in April when BookTour received a $350,000 cash injection from Amazon.com. While the news was eclipsed by the Amazonfail contretemps at the time, the big financial push certainly suggested that BookTour.com wasn’t about to set into the sunset anytime soon.

At the time the deal was announced, nobody had remarked on the grand irony of an online giant like Amazon using events listed at independent bookstores to make a quick buck. Fortunately, BookTour CEO and Chief Evangelist Kevin Smokler was kind enough to take some time out to answer some vital questions.

BookTour is financially supported by Amazon. Isn’t there a conflict of interest here? If, for example, a customer sees the BookTour link on an Amazon Author Page but the customer is encouraged to purchase the book from Amazon (instead of the bookstore at an author appearance), doesn’t this result in a lost sale for the bookstore? What steps are you taking to ensure that independent bookstores are able to secure the sales they require to support the financial burden of an author appearance?

Ed, we’re in the awareness business. Our job is make author events known to the greatest number of people that we can. No doubt that some potential customers who spot an event on Amazon will buy the book there and either (a) not go to the event at all or (b) go to the event with that Amazon purchase in hand. However, there’s an entire other second class of potential event attendees who will go to an event and may wish to reserve judgment on buying a book until they see the author in person. At that point, only the bookstore is in a position to sell the book to them. Also, we must consider whether that person would have known of the event at all without it being listed in such a high traffic place like Amazon.

Bottom line: The level of awareness that an event receives when listed on Amazon, to our mind, far outweighs the potential loss of sales. As to whether a store can financially support an event, that’s up to them. There are plenty of ways to run a bookstore in the 21st century and we believe smart booksellers know much more about this than we do.

Since BookTour is reliant on the Amazon Author Page for its infrastructure, have you worked out a scenario in which an Indiebound link will be available on an Amazon Author Page?

Sort of. Amazon has a corporate policy which disallows any outside linking to anybody. It’s a policy that BookTour disagrees with and which we have made known to Amazon. We hope to change this as our relationship with them deepens and moves forward.

For now, any bookstore may include a link to their e-commerce operation inside the description of any event happening at their store, so long as they added the event to our database. If their store’s website is powered by IndieBound, they need only include that link in the event description and the feed arrangement we have with IndieBound takes care of the rest.

(That link is not a clickable link, only one that can be cut and pasted into a separate browser window.)

We realize this is far from an ideal solution and we have told Amazon as much. We hope to change this going forward.

You say in your press release that Booktour represents the largest database of author and literary events. Do you mean to say that you now have relationships with every publisher? What are you doing to ensure the reliability of this information? Do you have someone on board who is checking the data on your site against the bookstores and the publishers?

Many publishers, but not all. Via our syndication relationships with both chain and independent booksellers, we can assure that we cover nearly every event happening in America in a bookstore. Libraries, universities, corporations, civic institutions and individual authors and publicists all actively list with us as well.

Reliability: Every event that enters our database is checked against several automated scripts and algorithms. We also do an additional level of checking by human eyes. All told, incorrect event data rarely lives on BookTour for more than 24 hours.

Checking: For more than a year, we’ve had syndication relationships with the major bookstore chains and Indiebound. Meaning they send their upcoming events in an automated feed to us which we update every 24 hours. We just set up a similar relationship with Simon & Schuster and we have several such relationships under active development with other publishers.

Is the information on Booktour proprietary in any way?

No.

Are you applying any DRM?

No.

Is Amazon claiming it to be proprietary because it appears on their pages?

No.

If Booktour is open source, do you have a specific agreement in place with Amazon to ensure that the information, as disseminated through their pages, remains open source?

Yes. Part of the terms of our deal with Amazon was that anyone else is free to use our data exactly as Amazon does, now and in perpetuity.

You’ve introduced EventMinion, which will take author tour data in any format and permit professionals to enter it into your database at $1 a pop. Yet users will still be able to add events for free. How are you distinguishing between EventMinion-added events and user-added events?

We’re not. To us, an event is an event is an event.

Will you place greater priority to listing EventMinion events over the user-added events?

No. See above.

TourBuilder gives the author an opportunity to receive an automated itinerary of bookstores. Are you charging for this service?

No.

Are you prioritizing some cities over others for this?

No. Users choose which cities they want to visit. If they don’t, we suggest larger cities with more available venues.

Big box stores over independent stores?

No.

Then what is the methodology behind TourBuilder?

Venues are suggested based on where authors with similar books have toured in the past. Which means that the more authors that use TourBuilder, the smarter it gets.

If Amazon controls the minority stake, who controls the majority?

The three founders and our one employee.

To what extent is the majority committed to not being bought out by Amazon (as they are wont to do with such handy services that it deems valuable)?

We’ll certainly entertain an offer should they put one forward. But that also doesn’t preclude us from entertaining offers from other interested parties.

alicehoffman

Alice Hoffman: The Most Immature Writer of Her Generation

alicehoffmanI’ve seen wild narcissism from authors in reaction to a review, but Alice Hoffman’s recent tweeting takes the cake. The Boston Globe‘s Roberta Silman reviewed Hoffman’s latest book, The Story Sisters. Silman wrote that Hoffman’s latest novel “lacks the spark of the earlier work.” The main character is “incredibly passive and doesn’t seem to have any of the normal anxiety of a mother in a time and place where hormones are raging, drugs are rife, and dangers abound.” In fact, Silman even commends Hoffman for one section of the book “described with real skill and precision” and notes “some wonderful passages” near the close.

This review is hardly nasty or vicious at all. And Hoffman must be a truly sheltered and out-of-touch writer indeed to consider this easily ignored slap on the wrist some ineffable form of damnation. Silman’s review and Hoffman’s disproportionate reaction is the intellectual equivalent of confusing a few droplets of water hitting your skin with a torturous session of waterboarding. To call Hoffman’s reaction histrionic is an understatement.

Silman’s review is a considered piece written by someone who didn’t take to Hoffman’s latest. The kind of review that any reasonable author would walk away from and say, “Oh well. Maybe she’ll dig the next novel.” I mean, it’s not as if Silman declared Alice Hoffman “the worst writer of her generation” or anything.

But since Hoffman has publicly posted Silman’s phone number and private email address, I think it’s safe to say that Alice Hoffman is certainly the most immature writer of her generation. One expects such behavior from a whiny brat in a boarding school who didn’t get the latest iPhone, not a 57-year-old bestselling author who won’t have to beg for a writing assignment or a hot meal anytime soon.

Hoffman has gone out of her way to invade Silman’s privacy. And maybe this is a desperate form of publicity or a desperate cry for attention. But I’m with Ron Charles on this. You write a sharp, witty response instead. Or even better, you develop a modicum of humility. (That, and the ability to spell Verizon correctly.)

[UPDATE: Alice Hoffman has deleted her Twitter account and apologizes.]

dickarmey

The History of Verizon, Part Three (September to October 2000)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: About a year ago, I began a comprehensive history about the expansion of Verizon. I don't know if I will ever finish the narrative, because the story is quite complicated. But here is the next installment in the series. Part One, which concerns itself with April to August 2000, can be found here. Part Two, which concerns itself with August 2000, can be found here.]

With the August strike eating eighteen days of steady service, Verizon Communications faced a considerable delay in work orders. There were 50,000 delayed repairs and over 200,000 orders for new service that needed to be fulfilled. And if a customer wanted to go to another competitor — such as AT&T or MCI WorldCon — well, that customer would end up facing the same delays. Because by the summer of 2000, these companies relied heavily on Verizon’s networks.

There were, however, positive developments from the new contract emerging from the strike. In early September, Verizon offered its 210,000 employees 55 million shares of stock options. 85,000 union workers would receive 100 shares a piece. Verizon Wireless employees weren’t included in the contract, but this was a victory for the unionized workers. For analysts were also suggesting that Verizon stock was a good buy.

dickarmeyCustomers service reps, bearing the brunt of too much stress, were given five 30-minute breaks each week. The new contract also made it difficult for workers to be shuttled around from one national region to another, which caused BusinessWeek to raise an opportunistic eyebrow. The New Economy demanded “labor flexibility,” which seemed to BusinessWeek to involve unhitching one’s residential roots like a serviceman constantly on the move from one military base to another. (Ironically, there had been four rounds of base closures over the past twelve years, where some 152 bases were closed or curtailed courtesy of legislative efforts from Rep. Dick Armey. Perhaps it was believed that the New Economy’s private entrepreneurship might miraculously provide for government workers shifting around in the Old.)

Still, as New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse pointed out, the Verizon contract — like the Firestone and United deals at the time — had worked out somewhat well for workers because the industry was unionized. Unions had sacrificed their power in the past four decades, but at least one remaining bundle of workers was able to secure a victory. Not even the steel or the auto industries had been able to do this in the 1980s without some serious backpedaling.

oldtelephoneFor eager customers, however, the more important question was whether or not Verizon could roll out its DSL services faster. Verizon, like Flashcom, was sometimes taking as long as six months to install DSL service, particularly in New York. In New York, Verizon blamed the problem on the ancient wiring systems. But since Verizon remained in control of the telephone wires, perhaps Verizon’s failure to roll out DSL service had more to do with the competitors. If Verizon held out in New York, other companies would have to expend considerable resources building their own wires. Road Runner, however, continued to flourish with its cable services.

Verizon approached this competitive dilemma by slashing its DSL prices in some territories from $49.95/month to $39.95/month. The augmented coverage territory secured by the GTE-Bell Atlantic merger would result in reduced prices for both residential and business DSL service. And the DSL modem was free if the customer committed to a one-year contract. But was it really free? Sure, you’d save $120 in one year if you signed up for a one-year contract. But the modem itself was worth only $99.

As Forbes‘s David Simons observed, the $39.95 price point was a boon for mass adoption, even if it wasn’t particularly profitable for ISPs. (And if you were a smaller ISP, you’d pay more for the installation and upkeep of a DSL line. ISP Planet‘s Jim Wagner pointed out that the $39.95 price point gave other providers only $7.45 a month to earn back service costs, as wel as the $400 installation.) Perhaps the strategy here was to get Verizon customers hooked on long-term contracts, with an emphasis on high-volume profit by giving customers extra incentives to sign on for other services under the “savings” imprimatur. Verizon also offered two other deals that year: a 30-day money back guarantee and $5 off every month if you also had one of Verizon’s local calling packages. Aggressive marketing helped spread the message.

The question of just how aggressive Verizon was in 2000 with its customer sales representatives may not be easily answerable. But there are some suggestions that Verizon customers were not only signed up for DSL service that was not only unavailable in their area, but forced into two-year contracts. A former Verizon worker posted this story to complaints.com in July 2001 (I preserve the spelling and grammatical mistakes):

After going through the so called ‘training’. A group of about 20 of us were thrown to the ‘wolves’, so to speak. After a few weeks of lying to people…my conscience started bothering me. It was a particular customer, an old lady…very sweet. She reminded me of my grandma. She literally started crying on the phone, About how she could never get connected to the internet. The first thing I did was to check to see if service was even available in her area, or if some ass had sold her “verizon high speed internet” some where, where it wasnt even available.(I had already seen a few cases where customers had signed 2 year contracts, and they didnt even have service in their area!). And sure enough, after I checked on the system…the service wasnt even available in her area. I just told her the truth “mam, verizon high speed dsl internet service is not even available in your area….” she had been going back and forth with “Technical Support Agents” for about a year…and no one had even told her that service wasnt even available in her area. Yet she was signed up for a 2 year contract and was even paying!

The Associated Press’s Peter Svensson reported in September 2000 that Verizon was even putting a stop to other ISPs who were using Covad lines. A Brooklyn customer named Dana Smith hoped to get DSL service through a smaller provider who used Covad. But since the DSL installation involved her Verizon landline, Verizon was uncooperative and hindered Covad’s attempts to fix problems on her line. And when she called Verizon, the company tried to sell her on its DSL service.

The FCC became Verizon’s unwitting accomplice. In October 2000, the FCC considered rules forcing commercial landlords to allow any telecommunications carrier (referred to as a “CLEC,” which stands for “competitive local exchange carrier”) access into its buildings to install new lines. In mid-October, the FCC ruled 4-1 in favor of the CLECs. The landlords lost. And it seemed as if the tenants had won freedom of choice. But how many of the tenants had to contend with Dana Smith’s scenario? If “choice” involved being steamrolled into one-year contracts through deep discount price cutting and uncooperative skirmishes with Covad, did the customer really opt for the service?

drlauraIt’s worth pointing out that Verizon did listen to its customer base from time to time. The company had pulled its ads from Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s show after Schlessinger had uttered hateful remarks about gays.

While Verizon wasn’t winning any friends among the early adopters, the telecommunications giant was then boasting that those who called for directory assistance were now spending 3.6 seconds on the phone, compared to 5.5 seconds in 1996 under Bell Atlantic. (Customer service, of course, would prove to be an issue for Verizon in the years to come.)

In mid-September 2000, the Justice Department had also approved Verizon’s purchase of OnePoint. (Here are the FCC documents.) OnePoint, known for providing high-speed Internet services in nine major metropolitan markets (particularly apartment buildings), would permit Verizon to expand its DSL service. (Indeed, Verizon didn’t waste any time. Only one month later, OnePoint was building a 4,000 square foot telecommunications facility in Atlanta.)

Meanwhile, on the mobile phone front, on August 31, 2000, the Justice Department granted approval for a merger between SBC Communication and BellSouth, making it the nation’s second-largest mobile-phone company. The new venture combined 17.9 million subscribers, just trailing Verizon’s 25.4 million customers. (The competition was also heating up on the local phone service front. By October 2000, SBC had revealed hopes to nab $1 billion in local service revenue over the next two years.)

Verizon responded to this competitive threat by amping up its advertising. In addition, Verizon had settled upon Burrell Communications Group to handle a brand introduction campaign. These advertising costs were estimated somewhere between $20 million to $30 million.

As Verizon continued to expand its operations, the erection of copious cell phone towers spawned some controversy. In addition to the cell phone tower’s eyesore aesthetic, Tiburon telecommunciations consultant Ted Kreines observed real estate prices drop for property near the towers. At the time, Verizon spokeswoman Tracey Kennedy noted that Verizon was doing its best to keep facilities from looking unsightly.

Verizon’s aggressive efforts to woo its customers for flashy services at cut-rate prices weren’t limited to DSL. Near the end of September, Verizon hit upon a strategy to target mobile phone consumers. A new program called New Every Two offered a customer a free cell phone if the customer signed on for a two-year contract. There was also the option of a phone upgrade. Verizon was the first of the then six wireless carriers to offer these options.

And in October 2000, the Vodafone Group, which was Verizon Communications’s partner in Verizon Wireless, was also eyeing Eircom, an Irish telecommunications conglomerate. A brief summary of Irish telecommunications: Telecom Éireann was a company assigned to overhaul the Irish telecommunications structure. The company, with a majority stake owned by the Irish government, exceeded its expectations and converted the entire network to digital by the 1990s. But in 1999, the Irish government sold off its 65% stake. Eircom was the parent company of Eircell, which represented the mobile division of Telecom Éireann. In other words, a company, largely bankrolled by a government, that had built up one of the most effective telecommunications networks in the world was gobbled up by one of Verizon Wireless’s principals. Innovation built with public money was snatched up by Vodafone in 2001, and Eircell became Vodafone Ireland, a private entity that sponsored Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? without apparent irony.

Verizon Wireless was also expanding on local fronts. On October 10, Verizon Wireless acquired 24.2% of Sacramento Valley L.P., which provided cell phone service in Northern California and Nevada. (Verizon’s stake in Sacramento Valley L.P. was now more than 76%.)

With all this buying and all this expansion, was an initial public offering in the cards? There was an initial plan in mid-October and the IPO was expected to bag about $5 billion, but economic conditions scrapped that. It was expected that the IPO would take place by the end of 2000. (As it turned out, the IPO was delayed considerably longer.)

There were also a few innovations that anticipated application developments on the smartphone. Years before Snaptell, Verizon teamed up with BarPoint, where Verizon customers could punch a bar code into their phone and determine how much it was at an online store. (BarPoint, which would wither away like many companies of its type, may have had the right idea at the wrong time.) Verizon also had an idea of charging customers $36 a year to list their email addresses in the phone book, little realizing that such information would be instantly findable through search engines in very little time.

cellphonedriverVerizon took great care in presenting itself as a corporation that cared about the public. In October, Verizon spokesman Kevin Moore praised a New Jersey Senate study to examine whether cell phones distracted drivers. (Of course, Verizon’s message always changed with legislative developments. A mere seven months later, another Verizon spokesman named Howard Waterman begged then New York Governor George Pataki to wait three years on banning cell phones in cars. Waterman didn’t mention public safety or distracted drivers. His motivation for the delay was “to allow wireless customers time to upgrade their phones because some of them simply do no have handsfree capability.”)

Verizon had a terrifying knack for transforming its message and its motivations seemingly overnight. The spokesman you dealt with today might be somebody else tomorrow. One division might be another or absorbed into another next month. A small carrier leveraged out during this expansionist fervor might have its stationery replaced by Verizon in weeks. At least the unionized workers still had some protection. But the customers accepted all this without question. The economy was in bad shape. There were exciting technological advancements, such as cell phones and DSL, to be had for a pittance. But would any of us know the real prices we paid for our convenience?

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What Michael Jackson Gave Me

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1. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. But the first (and one of the few) albums that I had was the picture disc of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Before that, I would nervously call the DJ at my FM radio station and ask him to play Michael Jackson. The disc was played over and over, and I began to deconstruct how the sounds came together. The synth egg shake on “Wanna Be Startin’ Soemthin’” and “Billie Jean.” The way in which the guitars were mixed together in “Beat It.” The fusion of vocals. Michael Jackson helped me find my ears.

2. I really liked Eddie Van Halen but was to shy to say anything about it. Until Eddie Van Halen showed up on “Beat It.” Then it was cool to dig Van Halen. Same went with Vincent Price. And then he showed up on “Thriller.” Michael Jackson helped me find confidence in enjoying the seemingly strange. (On the other hand, in hindsight, I now wonder if I was the victim of marketing. But I suppose strange tastes have to start somewhere.)

3. I had a Michael Jackson “Human Nature” folder in the fourth grade. I carried it close to my chest when I walked and was ruthlessly mocked by my schoolmates for not only having a passe interest in Michael Jackson (the folder was purchased from the discount bin), but for holding it “like a girl.” I then started carrying the folder in the “manly” way, holding it from the side, placing it perpendicular to my arm with my fingers curling over the edge. I was never hassled again for it, until the same schoolmates tore it from my hand and ripped it into shreds just after they beat the shit out of me. Michael Jackson, in his own oblique way, gave me a very good reason not to be a conformist.

4. Weird Al Yankovic parodied “Beat It” and several friends and I discussed the close similarities between Michael Jackson’s video and Yankovic’s video. Michael Jackson, by giving the okay to Weird Al, helped me appreciate satire.

5. Michael Jackson always appeared in gritty videos, often with a fantastical element attached. No matter how impoverished one was, street tiles could light up if you were simply who you were. Michael Jackson gave me optimism during a dark childhood.

6. Michael Jackson died yesterday. As a kid, I had turned my back on Michael Jackson sometime after Bad and rather ungratefully pretended that he hadn’t done anything for me. This wasn’t the case at all. Michael Jackson, in dying, has reminded me of my core values: to value what I have, to remember what others have been kind enough to give me, and to always pay it forward. For the good that you put out there, whether directly or indirectly, means more to people than you know.

Michael Jackson Dead

While TMZ and Gawker are reporting that Michael Jackson is dead, I wish to point out that there has been no official confirmation of his death. I spoke with Craig Harvey of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office and he informed me that there was no official confirmation of his death as of 3:00 PM Pacific Time. The person who is legally obligated to confirm the death is Jackson’s physician. And as of yet, there has been no official announcement.

UPDATE: As of 3:15 PM Pacific Time, the Los Angeles Times reports that Michael Jackson is dead after arriving at a hospital in a deep coma.

UPDATE 2: Michael Jackson’s death confirmed by AP (as picked up by The New York Times). (Thanks for the minor correction, vidiot.)

Three Producers Fired from American News Project?

I received a tip that three producers at the American News Project had been fired. The American News Project is directed by Nick Penniman, who also serves as the Executive Director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. The Investigative Fund was only just announced by Arianna Huffington back in April.

I managed to get associate producer Lagan Sebert on the phone, who sounded a bit nervous. He told me that he could neither confirm nor deny that there were firings, but indicated that there may possibly be an announcement. I then asked if there was anybody in authority there who I could speak of to clear up the news. He returned to the phone and told me, “I can’t say anything.” He suggested that I get in touch with Penniman directly. And I have sent an email to Mr. Penniman. I will update this post if I learn anything.

RIP Farrah Fawcett

The above clip, from The Partridge Family, set a celebratory impulse into motion. Farrah Fawcett was 23. And even within the seemingly vanilla universe of the Partridges, she still wore a dress that revealed her tawny anatomy, which was always offset by her bubbly voice. Fawcett, of course, would become best-known for Charlie’s Angels for these qualities. And as I was to understand from friends who had surfed along the raging tide of puberty ten to fifteen years before me, Fawcett was the picture you had on the inside of your high school locker.

My generation viewed Fawcett as the sad and flighty space cadet past her prime making frequent appearances on David Letterman. The older woman who bared all in Playboy just as the term MILF was gaining popular usage. Robert Duvall’s troubled wife in The Apostle. Even Robert Altman exploited her as Richard Gere’s mentally afflicted wife in Dr. T and the Women. You couldn’t really make fun of Fawcett, because doing so would mean perceiving her through this troubling misogynistic prism. But if you empathized, would you fall into the same trap? Fawcett, unlike Marilyn Monroe, didn’t have the brains to match her beauty. What was the solution? Directors casting her in roles as the aging ditz? Celebrating her as a kitschy icon?

The cancer encouraged public sympathy. That 1970s pinup was dying. And so too was a sentiment that had lingered long after Third Wave feminism had settled the score. Fawcett carried this additional burden of public scrutiny, one that we can possibly never know, and thus deserves our condolences.

secretpoliceman

Review: Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (1976) and The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979)

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You know that cultural journalism is in a sorry state when only four people show up for a screening, and not a single dead soul (save for myself, still chortling with pulse) has the courage to laugh at legendary comedy material or get excited by consummate performers tinkering with sketches like tetchy scientists.

I was in a darkened theater for a film called Pleasure at Her Majesty’s, part of The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival, which kicks off this Friday at the Lincoln Center. The Festival even includes, for those cineastes saddled with an equine constitution, a full screening of the 660 minute film, A Conspiracy of Hope — essentially Amnesty International’s 1986 answer to Live Aid, but probably not up there with The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Despite the hopeful title, you won’t find Freddie Mercury wowing at Wembley. This screening seems to be a wild gamble on the Film Society’s part. For who out there in New York is really interested in 23-year-old footage of Jackson Browne and Bryan Adams? (Then again.)

The common assumption is that, if an esteemed film society is holding something called The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival, you should probably check out the main film. But I’m here to tell you that you can probably skip the primary offering. The true can’t-miss movie here is Pleasure at Her Majesty’s, which features some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of, among many geniuses, the Monty Python troupe (sans Eric Idle) rethinking the Courtroom Sketch. We see the Python team trying to pinpoint why the sketch doesn’t entirely work. They make changes. They argue. And even after they have performed the sketch later in the film and have received laughs, John Cleese walks off-stage and remains unconvinced that it worked with the audience.

This is fascinating if you’re interested in dramatic rhythm. And it isn’t just Python here. Deep division among the Beyond the Fringe performers is intimated in a conversation with Alan Bennett and Terry Jones, both seemingly unaware of the camera. “I could never do anything you do,” says a wan-faced Bennett. “The atmosphere with you is different. You don’t seem competitive in the way we were.” And we begin to wonder if Beyond the Fringe’s anti-authoritarian comedy was motivated by internal strife. At what social cost does one break new ground?

The Secret Policeman’s Ball, which doesn’t permit us these interesting peeks behind the curtain and features more music in the place of many comedy sketches, remains an enjoyable if badly dated film. The Amnesty organizers began changing the formula. And the contrast can be seen in the choices. Pleasure has Neil Innes’s delightful “Protest Song.” Policeman gives us Tom Robinson’s “Glad to Be Gay”: brave at the time, but precisely the kind of sanctimonious fury that Innes was satirizing.

In Policeman, Peter Cooks’s sendup of the Jeremy Thrope 1979 trial is funny, but only if you know all the scandalous details. It is indeed ironic that the very sketch Cook wrote in response to criticisms that the Amnesty shows contained nothing more than regurgitated material has secured its own time capsule. And the less said about Billy Connolly, the better.

On the other hand, one of Policeman‘s highlights is a wild and wonderful performance from a pre-Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy. McCoy hammers a four inch nail into his nose and attempts to dodge a toy train approaching his testicles with a fork while he remains chained to a chair. The late David Rappaport is even involved. McCoy’s antics, which involve jumping atop audience heads while wearing a kilt, are almost unthinkable today. McCoy — and Rowan Atkinson, who appears in an early version of his Schoolmaster sketch — presents the kind of free-wheeling comic anarchy no longer welcomed in our sanitized corporate atmosphere, where uncourageous Establishment types like John Hodgman stand before an audience, tell them the “clever” niceties they like to hear, and fail to challenge their assumptions. (Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, had stones.)

But Policeman stands in the shadow of Pleasure. Unlike Policeman, which features “slight direction by John Cleese,” Pleasure really permits us to see just how brilliant Cleese is on stage. A filmed version of a stage show limits itself by necessity to subjective camera angles, but the sheer authoritative energy that Cleese brings to the Dead Parrot sketch (with the line “This is your nine o’clock alarm call” added when he beats the parrot) is a marvel to behold.

Pleasure‘s vérité format permits us to witness a strange old boy’s world where John Cleese is seen with a McDonald’s cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and everybody is fiercely competitive. There’s one moment in which Jonathan Miller and Barry Humphries puff nervously on their smokes and bitch about who’s the oldest. Small wonder that it took a high-energy legend like Miller to corral these guys together.

But the lack of women in both films, aside from Eleanor Bron and Carol Cleveland, is unsettling. A few decades (and a few more Policeman films) later, women are now finally permitted to be funny, even when Christopher Hitchens declares that they aren’t. It’s just too bad that comedy remains shoehorned by the cobblers who wish to keep talent running inside the track. The Policeman films document a bygone era in which you could get crazy for a good cause. Perhaps it’s still possible today, if some innovator with deep pockets conjures up some charitable comedy that’s feral and progressive and inclusive.

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Chris Anderson, Plagiarist?

freeThe Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Waldo Jaquith has uncovered several instances of apparent plagiarism within Chris Anderson’s forthcoming book, Free. Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR‘s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

As the examples below will demonstrate, Anderson’s failure to paraphrase properly is plagiarism, according to the Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services’s very helpful website. It is simply not enough for Anderson to cite the source. An honest and ethical author cannot, in good conscience, swipe whole sentences and paragraphs, change a few words, and call it his. Plagiarism is not an either-or proposition, although we leave the readers to decide whether the cat inside the box is dead or alive.

It appears that Chris Anderson, who boasts in the acknowledgments about spending a year and a half writing this book, has spent most of these eighteen months repurposing content from other sources. Anderson has explained to the VQR that he had “an inability to find a good citation format for web sources.” But this “explanation” hardly accounts for the wholesale theft of language documented here and at the VQR.

And I must point out that, like Mr. Jaquith, I have hardly committed an exhaustive search.

EXAMPLE ONE

The section on the beginning of Jell-O on Pages 7-10 has lifted almost all of its information from the Jell-O Museum Website, only slightly rephrasing sentences. Here is one example:

Anderson, P. 9: “First, they crafted a three-inch ad to run in Ladies’ Home Journal, at a cost of $336.”

Jell-O Museum Site: “A three-inch ad costing $336 in the Ladies Home Journal launched the printed portion of the campaign….”

EXAMPLE TWO

In a subsection called “The Three Prices,” Anderson writes about Derek Sivers’s “reversible business models,” but entire paragraphs from Sivers’s “Reversible Business Models” August 2008 blog post have been recycled with very few modifications.

Anderson, P. 32: “In China, some doctors are paid monthly when their patients are healthy. If you are sick, it’s their fault, so you don’t have to pay that month. It’s their goal to get you healthy and keep you healthy so they can get paid.”

Sivers: “In China, some doctors are paid monthly when you are healthy. If you are sick, it’s their fault, so you don’t have to pay that month. It’s their goal to get you healthy and keep you healthy so they can get paid. ”

Anderson, P. 31: “In one instance, he told his class at MIT’s Sloan School of Business that he would be doing a reading of poetry (Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) but didn’t know what it should cost. He handed out a questionnaire to all the students, half of who were asked if they’d be willing to pay $10 to hear him read, and the other half of whom were asked if they’d be willing to hear him read if he paid them $10. Then he gave them all the same question: What should the price be to hear him read short, medium, and long versions of the poem?

Sivers: “Professor Dan Ariely told his class that he would be doing a reading of poetry, but didn’t know what it should cost. He handed out a price survey to all students, but secretly half of the surveys asked if they’d be willing to pay $10 to hear him read, and the other half asked if they’d be willing to hear him read if he paid them $10!

“Those who got the question about paying him were willing to pay. They offered to pay, on average, $1, $2, $3 for short, medium, long readings.”

EXAMPLE THREE

When opening Chapter 3 (“The History of Free”), Anderson uses very close phrasing from Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (which Anderson credits). Anderson’s sentences skirt the line between acceptable paraphrasing and plagiarism, but this is certainly a bit too close for comfort.

Anderson, P. 34-35: “Instead, they used just two marks: a wedge that represented 1 and a double wedge that represented 10.”

Seife, P. 13-14: “Also, the Babylonians used only two marks to represent their numbers: a wedge that represented 1 and a double wedge that represented 10.”

Anderson, p. 35: “Greek math was epitomized by Pythagoras and his Pythagorean cult, which made such profound discoveries as the musical scale and the golden ratio (but not, ironically, the Pythagorean Theorem — the formula for calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle had actually been known for many years before Pythagoras).”

Seife, p. 28-29: “In modern schools, children learn of Pythagoras for his famed theorem: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. However, this was in fact ancient news. It was known more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras’s time.”

EXAMPLE FOUR

Chris Anderson’s habit of citing a book, without acceptable paraphrase, is also evident in a section on the transistor cadged from Chapter 4 of Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy (cited but not acceptably modified).

Anderson, P. 79: “For instance, in the early 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor was selling an early transistor, called the 1211, to the military. Each transistor cost $100 to make. Fairchild wanted to sell the transistor to RCA for use in their new UHF television tuner. At the time RCA was using traditional vacuum tubes, which cost only $1.05 each.

“Fairchild’s founders, the legendary Robert Noyce and Jerry Sanders, knew that as their production volume increased, the cost of the transistor would quickly go down. But to make their first commercial sale they needed to get the price down immediately, before they had any volume at all. So they rounded down. Way down They cut the price of the 1211 to $1.05, right from the start, before they even knew how to make it so cheaply. “We were going to make the chips in a factory we hadn’t built, using a process we hadn’t yet developed, but the bottom line was: We were out there the next week quoting $1.05,” Sanders later recalled. “We were selling into the future.”

“It worked. By getting way ahead of the price decline curve, they made their goal of $1.05 and took 90 percent of the UHF tuner market share. Two years later they were able to cut the price of the 1211 to 50 cents, and still make a profit.”

Kelly: “In the early 1960s Robert Noyce and his partner Jerry Sanders—founders of Fairchild Semiconductor—were selling an early transistor, called the 1211, to the military. Each transistor cost Noyce $100 to make. Fairchild wanted to sell the transistor to RCA for use in their UHF tuner. At the time RCA was using fancy vacuum tubes, which cost only $1.05 each. Noyce and Sanders put their faith in the inverted pricing of the learning curve. They knew that as the volume of production increased, the cost of the transistor would go down, even a hundredfold. But to make their first commercial sale they need to get the price down immediately, with zero volume. So they boldly anticipated the cheap by cutting the price of the 1211 to $1.05, right from the start, before they knew how to do it. “We were going to make the chips in a factory we hadn’t built, using a process we hadn’t yet developed, but the bottom line: We were out there the next week quoting $1.05,” Sanders later recalled. “We were selling into the future.” And they succeeded. By anticipating the cheap, they made their goal of $1.05, took 90% of the UHF market share, and then within two years cut the price of the 1211 to 50 cents, and still made a profit.”

EXAMPLE FIVE

The opening of Chapter 11, which involves French mathematician Antoine Cournot, features text pulled and only slightly modified from Cournot’s Wikipedia entry

Anderson, p. 171: “The members of the French Liberal School, who dominated the economics profession in France at the time, were uninterested, leaving Cournot dispirited and bitter.”

Wikipedia: “The denizens of the French Liberal School, who dominated the economics profession in France at the time, took no notice of it, leaving Cournot crushed and bitter.”

Anderson, p. 172: “Bertrand argued that Cournot had reached the wrong conclusion on practically everything. Indeed, Bertrand thought that Cournot’s use of production volume as the key unit of competition was so arbitrary that he, half-jokingly, reworked Cournot’s model with prices, not output, as the key variable.”

Wikipedia: “Bertrand argued that Cournot had reached the wrong conclusion on practically everything, and reworked Cournot’s duopoly model with prices, rather than quantities, as the strategic variables — and obtained the competitive solution immediately.”

UPDATE: In the course of my investigations, I accidentally stumbled upon what was apparently Chris Anderson’s hard drive. The only thing I did was peek at the files related to the book. I certainly didn’t scour through emails or add files, as Anderson suggests. (Indeed, I didn’t even know that this represented a public hard drive.) But Anderson, instead of addressing any of my findings here or at the VQR, has instead accused me of adding files to his hard drive, a charge that is patently false. Because I neither possessed the knowledge nor the desire to mess with Anderson’s hard drive. Anderson has since made his hard drive private, demonstrating just how committed he is to open source.

UPDATE 2: Anderson’s spin control continues. Chris Anderson has told the Guardian that the errors were “a lot less” than the VQR suggests.

UPDATE 3: Chris Anderson issues a response on his blog, but refuses to address the verbatim excerpts cited above, despite additional requests in the VQR thread.

UPDATE 4: To offer a point of comparison, as it so happens, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap — a book that will be discussed on these pages in a forthcoming roundtable — has also paraphrased the Ariely poetry experiment on p. 68. And the specific ways in which Shell has paraphrased and Anderson has paraphrased demonstrate a substantial difference:

As example, Ariely described an experiment in which he offered to recite Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a classroom of students. Half the students were asked whether they would pay $2 for the pleasure of hearing him read the poem, while the other half were asked if they were willing to listen if they were paid $2. Then both sets of numbers were asked whether they would attend the recitation if it were free.

Only 8 percent of the students who were offered money to listen to the recitation were willing to attend the performance without pay, compared with the 35 percent of the students who were originally asked to pay to hear it. Clearly, the “framing” of the event — the context from which the proposal emerged — influenced its perceived value, a perception that trumped whatever inherent value it might have held for the students (unlikely to be much). (68)

One can see a major difference between Anderson’s practice of cutting and pasting text from websites and Shell’s actual journalism. Shell actually went out to talk with Ariely. Shell then summarized Ariely’s example and explained to her readers why it’s important within the context of her point — in this case, the framing and the perception of pricing — and developed an independent explanation. Anderson, by contrast, merely used the Ariely example that was also used by Derek Sivers, and even closely parroted Sivers’s phrasing of the Ariely example.

UPDATE 5: Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin offers propaganda in favor of Chris Anderson. Jardin is a frequent contributor to Wired, but she’s failed to disclose this pivotal conflict of interest in her post. Additionally, former Wired regular Mark Frauenfelder can also be found defending his beloved employer. Don’t you just love journalistic integrity?

UPDATE 6: It pains me to report that the Los Angeles Times‘s Carolyn Kellogg has written an ostensible “story” on Anderson. Unfortunately, Kellogg has failed to contact anybody other than Anderson and Mark Frauenfelder, who has professional connections with Anderson at Wired (which are not disclosed by Kellogg). With quotes like “My attribution failures aside, this is an important book,” the piece reads like it come from a press release issued by Anderson’s publicist. If Kellogg practiced objective journalism, she would have spoken with Anderson, Waldo Jaquith (who broke the story), and a plagiarism expert — thereby giving the reader an objective account with which to make a decision.

The Joys of Nicholson Baker

I was a bookish and uncertain young man bouncing around law firms when a playfully perverse paperback halted my calisthenics on the ontological trampoline. The book was The Fermata. Its titular notational symbol stretched across the soft pink cover like a giddy golden rainbow, resembling an Orwellian eye or a junior high schooler’s crude doodle of a mammary gland. As I plunged into its pages, I found myself delighted by a surprisingly erudite novel depicting the lives of office workers – a world I knew quite well — in skippy and candid terms, giving credence to the odd thoughts that many of us toiling in cubicles kept quietly to ourselves.

But the book went much further. Using a high-concept premise of a thirtysomething temp with the ability to stop time, The Fermata was forthright about its protagonist’s kinky caprices. Arno Stine didn’t just take off bras and sneak puerile peeks at women. He penned personalized erotic stories, which he styled “rot,” that were tailored to specific individuals, depositing these racy escapades in places where the subjects could discover them with ridiculous ease. He didn’t always succeed. One naughty narrative – reproduced in the text in its hot and heavy, deliberately hackneyed glory – involves a character named Marian the Librarian. The story is written and recorded onto a tape for a woman driving in a car, but Arno’s attempt at arousing her is a failure when she tosses this cassette onto the highway as if it were casual detritus.

Arno performs elaborate experiments in the Fold – the referential realm he occupies when time has stopped – that frequently involves sex toys and women placed in terribly objectifying scenarios. To some degree, The Fermata was the giddy and licentious counterpart to Bret Easton Ellis’s grisly and eye-popping American Psycho. But it was a testament to Nicholson Baker’s peculiar powers of perspective that his book somehow came across as innocuous. As Arno puts it, when comparing his actions with another’s more sordid speculative chimeras, “some of the things I have done are – let me just say it – rape-like acts that some observers would condemn more vehemently than they would condemn the security guard’s offhand remote-control fantasies, because I should know better, and because, in my own case, they really happened.”

The Fermata arrived more than a decade before The Office became a transatlantic triumph of cringe comedy and Joshua Ferris mined the minutiae of office life for his celebrated 2007 novel, Then We Came to the End. Baker, however, took considerably more chances than his followers. In describing his feelings for an office manager, Arno observes, “You have to be extremely careful about complimenting a thirty-five-year-old temp who has achieved nothing in his life.” But it was not mere prurience that beckoned my attention. What made The Fermata work so well was its remarkable willingness to be absolutely specific about the darker side of human consciousness. There were no limits to what seemingly ordinary people thought about. This candor is particularly evident during one moment when Arno secretly watches a woman address her dildo as if it were a submissive lover. And the disparity between cloistered American fantasies and what is acceptable to American norms has forms the intriguingly incongruent bedrock that Baker has built his work upon.

* * *

Baker was born on January 7, 1957 in Rochester, New York. His parents were art students at the Parsons School of Design. Baker’s concern for details was initiated quite early when his mother suggested that he draw the interior of a pillow. There were early musical aspirations. Baker took up the bassoon in fourth grade and was, at one point, a substitute in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. But he abandoned these pursuits to complete a B.A. at Haverford in 1980. Baker wrote a handful of stories for The New Yorker and other literary magazines, before turning his attentions to his first novel.

Hyperspecificity has been a Baker hallmark from the beginning. Baker’s first two novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, both concentrate on how the details within an everyday chore – respectively, a post-lunch hour ride up an escalator and a young father feeding his baby – lead to protracted ruminations upon the world around us: whether or not one can detect a person’s handwriting entirely by sound and the advantages in hanging a tie over a doorknob, to name just two. Years later, Baker offered another volume along these lines with A Box of Matches, forming a loose trilogy. But this time he offered a more episodic approach, with chapters centered around a middle-aged man who wakes up incredibly early to light a fire and continue a series of morning musings.

In Understanding Nicholson Baker, Arthur Saltzman suggested that Baker’s style “unites a jeweler’s intensity of focus, a forensic scientist’s ferocity for detail, a monk’s humble delight in private discipline, and a satirist’s sensitivity to oddities and errors.” Saltzman was right to observe these motifs, but Baker is often unpredictable with each new volume. His two libidinous novels, Vox and The Fermata, were followed by The Everlasting Story of Nory, an unexpectedly tender novel depicting the internal thoughts of a nine-year-old girl. Two of his novels (Vox and Checkpoint) do away with the detailed description altogether and are presented exclusively in dialogue. In addition to a remarkably candid rumination on Baker’s relationship as a reader to John Updike (U & I), Baker has also authored two nonfiction polemics: Double Fold, an impassioned plea for the preservation of newspapers that also serves as an unexpected expose on how libraries have cavalierly junked their collections, and, most recently, Human Smoke, which recasts the events leading up to World War II from a pacifist perspective.

This idiosyncratic approach has resulted in several ad hominem attacks from critics, who are curiously threatened by a writer who only wishes to delve deeply and honestly into the world’s overlooked foci. Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New York Times Book Review, declared Checkpoint a “scummy little book,” and further suggested that it “could be dismissed as another of Baker’s creepy hermeneutical toys.” Stephen King called Vox a “meaningless little finger paring.” Baker responded to King’s charge in his essay, “Clip Art,” pointing out that, because Allen Ginsberg had sold a bag of facial whiskers to Stanford, parings could not be “brushed off as meaningless.” More recently, Adam Kirsch, writing in The New York Sun on Human Smoke, declared it “not just a stupid book, but a scary one.” These vainglorious vituperations run counter to the first rule of reviewing that Updike set down in his introduction to Picked Up Pieces: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

Baker’s voice may be too distinct for a few standpatting snoots to appreciate. But if one carefully examines Baker’s work, one finds a precision and a lyrical verisimilitude that is just as sophisticated as the realist authors awarded the laurels by critics of more wooden dispositions.

What makes Baker’s prose so interesting is the way that he is taken with quirky yet uncannily apposite associations. In The Mezzanine, he describes the wonders of Toyota turn-signal switches, “which move in their sockets like chicken drumsticks: they feel as if they were designed with living elbow cartilage as their inspiration.” In Nory and A Box of Matches, the comparisons are somewhat more rudimentary, in large part because they involve a child’s perspective. In A Box of Matches, the book’s narrator is galvanized by his daughter’s discovery that “You’ve got to get cold to get warm.” This maxim, mentioned as father and daughter are shivering in a car in which the heater “roared and hurled out a blast of cold and icy air,” is folksy on the surface, but it begins to take on a surprising resonance as the father considers how applicable this phrase is to life as a whole:

That is so true about many things. You learn it first with sheets and blankets: that the initial touch of the smooth sheets will send you shivering, but their warming works fast, and you must experience the discomfort to find the later contentment. It’s true with money and love, too. You’ve got to save to have something to spend. Think of how hard it is to ask out a person you like. In my case, Claire asked me to go on a date to the cash machine, so I didn’t actually have to ask her. Still, her lips were cold, but her tongue was warm.

Associative riffing along these lines is a recurrent character quality. In Vox, a book famously excavated as an item on Monica Lewinsky’s receipt, Jim explains the problems of listening to pop music. He points out that he can’t purchase and listen to albums, because “you really need the feeling of radio luck in listening to pop music, since after all it’s about somebody meeting, out of all the zillions of people in the world, this one other nice person, or at least several adequate people.” This concern for the ordinary leads to a larger longing to search for other voices, and we perceive a subtext for why this character is up late at night trying to connect with another on a phone sex line.

Baker’s misfits, denied a socially acceptable medium for their idiosyncratic thoughts, must find solace by either relating their ideas to loved ones (often wives, girlfriends, and daughters), memorializing their observations onto paper, or retreating to relatively anonymous terrain – whether it be their inner consciousness, the Fold, or a phone sex line. In Baker’s books, mainstream culture cannot always help his characters search for an exit for their ideas, in part because anarchic consciousness and structured narrative remain at loggerheads with each other. In The Mezzanine, Arno checks out numerous autobiographies from the library, “so that I would have a better idea of how to write this properly.” But the narrative he sets down lacks a linear trajectory and is largely a collection of digressions. (In typical Baker fashion, Arno apologizes for this.) Nory is taken with the phrase “TO BE CONTINUED” at the end of Back to the Future. Assigned to write a short story for a class, she ends up writing a lengthy story. But she is unable to finish it, and eventually affixes these three words to the end of her tales.

By Checkpoint, this inability to express inner consciousness takes on a deadlier quality. This novel involves two men meeting in a hotel room to discuss the idea of assassinating President Bush. At one point, Jay, the man determined to carry out this plan, insists that America lost World War II, pointing out that, “We were corrupted by it, and we became more and more warlike and secretive, and we spent all our money building weaponry and subverting little governments, poking here and there and propping up loathsome people, United Fruit. And the gangrene spread through the whole loaf of cheese.”

Consider the intriguing involutions here. The commonplace American concept of a loaf of bread has been replaced by a loaf of the substance that resides in the interior of a sandwich. A war intended to end fascism and secure peace has resulted in more belligerence and more systems. Jay’s rant isn’t entirely a condemnation of governmental policy. It’s a soliloquy of inner frustration, of Jay failing to find a place in America for his unconventional thinking. He has dutifully protested against the war, drawing the crowd in “like a huge amoeba of dissent” and “a spontaneous surge of humanity.” But these results have fallen upon deaf ears.

Because their thoughts cannot find a niche within the baseline of American culture, this may explain why Baker’s characters are largely unforthcoming about their names, which are frequently revealed late in his books. It is left to other characters to ferret out this basic identifying detail, often through dialogue. We learn that The Mezzanine‘s protagonist is named Howie only when others address him. And while Howie freely identifies his co-workers, he takes great care to hide the name of his girlfriend, who we know only as “L.” This suggests that the collective consciousness of his characters is perhaps greater than their identities, or simply a more private realm. Or perhaps this is simply what comes from remaining relatively anonymous in an office setting. Howie is asked to sign a get-well poster for Ray, a forty-five-year-old janitor who has hurt his back while “trying to move a swimming pool.” But the process of signing his name is laden with propriety and deportment. Howie can’t bring himself to sign near his boss’s name because “it might be construed as the assertion of a special alliance…or it might seem to imply that I was seeking out my boss’s name because I wanted to be near another exempt person’s name, avoiding the secretarial signatures.”

Complicating matters further, Baker’s characters often feel a linguistic diffidence when expressing their inner feelings to trusted confidants, an intriguing contrast to Baker’s frequently graphic depiction of their fantasies. In The Mezzanine, Arno refers to his penis as his “richard” and flinches at slang terms for pubic hair. Vox features lengthy conversations about whether commonplace slang terms for anatomy are acceptable. Jim, for example, cannot bring himself to use the word “breasts.” So he uses the word “frans” instead. Room Temperature‘s narrator confesses that “he had been unable to use normal swear words until I was eighteen.” What Baker is suggesting here is that, while perverse thoughts and innate associations may be as American as apple pie, the common language used to express them may be something of a hindrance.

Despite these obstacles, a word phrase often serves as a Proust-like madeleine. In The Mezzanine, Howie’s consideration of the phrase “often wondered” causes him to consider how often he has wondered about the profitability of Penguin Classics, which results in another train of thought. As Howie puts it, “Merely saying that you often wondered something gave no indication of how prominent a part of life that state of mind really was.” These verbal lucubrations sometimes lead to a giddy actuation of the senses. In The Fermata, Arno is greatly excited by the way an office manager dictates the phrase “lied like hell” onto a cassette.

Time too presents a crisis. The aforementioned janitor in The Mezzanine empties “each wastebasket liner into a gray triangular plastic push-dumpster, and thereby defining that day as truly over for that office, even though you might still be working in it, because anything you now threw out was tomorrow’s trash.” Each chapter in A Box of Matches begins with “Good morning, it’s 5:07 a.m.” And even Human Smoke provides a very specifically phrased date-stamp within each entry: “It was March 11, 1941.”

In his review of The Everlasting Story of Nory for The Boston Review, Ed Park suggested that willful thematic inversion has carried across the whole of Baker’s work. Park suggested that Nory was Room Temperature’s baby nine years later, pointing out that “the original object of affection…is now the main sensibility, whose thought patterns might conceivably mature into that earlier book’s cogitational wonderworks.”

To me, the common thread involves the degree to which imagination and conceptual association is permitted to flourish in America. This is clearly an idea that goes back to Don Quixote or Walter Mitty. But Baker suggests that these fantasies are an ineluctable part of American life – perhaps part of a quotidian multiverse that most are unwilling or unable to perceive. This may also explain in part Baker’s preservationist instincts, seen in his criticisms of libraries junking their newspaper collections in Double Fold and, in a recent New York Review of Books article on Wikipedia, his concerns for articles slotted for deletion.

Today, as I live a stranger and more rewarding and more uncertain life without the millstones of checking case citations and massaging boilerplate (at least for now), Baker’s books now depict an American utopia that I wasn’t entirely aware of during my initial plunge. In his fiction, Baker seems to be calling for a nation that is both more accepting and comprehensive about its consciousness. And in our current environment of executive branch autocracy and zero tolerance, it seems rather fitting that Baker has responded with Human Smoke, a book daring to suggest that the supposed good war could have been averted. The dreams of a hyperspecific terrain have migrated to the more pressing territory of the real. And if mainstream culture cannot accommodate this cheery simulacra, then Baker’s books most certainly will.

Editorial Policy

In response to developments at the Federal Trade Commission, I have established an editorial policy, an addendum to a post that I put up in June 2008, to address any and all ethical concerns. While I applaud the FTC for cracking down on “journalists” who serve mostly as odious junketeers, I don’t believe that these guidelines are fair to other bloggers who are more driven by honest journalism, and who practice with clean hands and composure.

The new guidelines are a double standard, designed to give greater power to other media. I don’t see the FTC going after Leo Laporte for getting a free Palm Pre. And I certainly don’t see the FTC going after film critics who attend free press screenings. (A $10 value! Surely, Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan are tools who can be corrupted!)

Despite the fact that my work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, I nevertheless enact the above editorial policy for my online writings. Because as annoying as stating the bleeding obvious can be sometimes, journalistic ethics are important.

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New Roundtable Discussion Date

cheaprtteaserTRUELadies and gentlemen, for those eagerly watching the skies, there has been a slight change in plans. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we will be discussing Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture during the week of July 13th, not the previous week (as previously announced). Yes, this is a fundamentally simple piece of data. The equivalent of attending a math class, walking up to a chalkboard with an eraser, wiping out a number in an equation, and replacing it with another number. If you did this, it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But since the discussion here does involve the Internet, shouldn’t it be more complicated than it needs to be?

So for those who wish to follow along, you have another week to think about the book. We have also managed to coax a few more souls to jump into our roundtable fiesta.

(Pursuant to the editorial policy, this discussion will not be assumptive. Books have been provided to the participants through the publisher. Roundtable participants — all possessing independent minds and feelings — have been insulated from any potential influence. Just as in previous roundtable discussions, the format will not preclude criticisms or negative comments in relation to the book.)

Richard Farrell Saved Me

I killed my dad. And then I killed Richard Farrell’s dad.. And then I killed my mom. And then I killed Richard Farrell’s mom. I didn’t blow any of these people away with a gun. Instead, I let them die. I pulled a kitchen chair up next to Richard Farrell and watched him struggle to come up with a tough and gritty narrative. I punched him in the face fifty times, and said, “Live, you bastard! There’s no room for the commonplace! If six of your family members don’t die within the next three days, then there will be no op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, much less a book to promote.” Then I cut off my left hand and began bleeding all over Richard Farrell. Then my left hand grew back. It took a long time, but it was a long night and there was time to kill and plenty of blood in me to let plop on the parquet floor. Then I cut off my right hand and I scattered the blood equally over my parents and Richard Farrell’s parents. I wanted them all to have a taste. And then my right hand grew back. All ten of our hands clutched tightly to their chest. And suddenly, the white in my eyes became flush with the possibility of tall tales mined into memoir.

Why did I do all this? It’s complicated.

You have to understand something about Richard Farrell. I loved the son of a bitch more than anything on the planet. You see, 28 years earlier, Richard Farrell chopped off my four little limbs and put the remainder of my body into a cardboard box. Years later, I would sue Kim Basinger for failing to perform the court-ordered fellatio upon a part of my body that I would refer to as “the first leg.” In my box, I did not move for thirteen years. I was home schooled and asked to memorize every passage in the Bible. I was then asked to memorize every passage in the Qur’an. I was then asked to memorize every line written by L. Ron Hubbard. Richard Farrell, who became both his own father and my father, was my educator and he forced me to eat lots of fiber. When I brayed for ice cream, Richard Farrell would come around and cut off a piece of anatomy. When I ran out of interesting anatomical parts, Richard Farrell would kidnap another kid in the neighborhood, get the kid hooked on heroin, and then start hacking away his body parts.

When I was 3, before he cut my limbs off and put me in the box, Richard Farrell brought me to the Bronx Zoo for answers. He threw me into the bear cage and laughed when I was mauled by the bears. I learned how to speak bear. The bears told me I had cerebral palsy. A loss of oxygen to my brain had destroyed my ability to communicate with other humans. But the bears understood my sensitive nature. They did not take pity on me. I tried pleading with the bears not to maim me. But they knew that Richard Farrell had taken me to the zoo.

My Aunt Helena tried to rescue me from Richard Farrell. She said that she hadn’t seen any relative bleed as frequently as I had. For a time, I was bleeding breweries in blood. The government became interested in my preternatural abilities to generate so much blood. Perhaps if the American population became tired of beer and more open-minded, they might consider my profuse bleeding as an alternative beverage.

Richard Farrell told my Aunt Helena and the government that he had sole legal dominion over my blood supply. He then made himself my Aunt Helena’s dad, and decapitated my Aunt Helena’s head three times, watching it grow back four times over a chilly December.

But back to the box. Ironically, it was easy for Richard Farrell to engage in an uncommon act of discernible love. He mutilated me because he loved me. He tried out eight thousand knives upon my tender young body. All of them were different models. He then asked me to co-author a large book chronicling the history of knives between 1982 and 1993. I agreed to do this because it would mean living out of the box.

My limbs grew back. But Richard Farrell became meaner. I thought he was faking. I reminded him what had happened. And he didn’t believe me. The Richard Farrell left me and boasted about his journalistic conquests.

While Richard Farrell covered Bosnia, I sniffed glue. I became addicted to mescaline, heroin, cocaine, E, meth, and nearly every upper and downer that you could buy in three states. I bought a wheelbarrow at a garage sale for $12 and rolled it around the neighborhood so that people would know how intense my drug habit was. Surprisingly, nobody arrested me. And then I got bored with drugs and became a blogger. Despite the incredible nature of my tales, I have been told that I am a boring person.

Richard Farrell never knew the whole truth. But all that counts is the bottom line. The small happy moments in your life can’t possibly top the intense melodramatic moments that some other author can exploit for greater attention. Living hard is better than writing well. And if you can’t live hard, you may not be a cripple. But you won’t get that book deal.

Edward Champion produced, directed, and starred in the HBO documentary “Boxed Like Me: A Story of Lost Life and Lost Limbs” and is the author of a forthcoming memoir, “A Billion Little Pieces.”

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Our July Roundtable Book Revealed!

cheaprtteaserTRUELadies and gentlemen, during the week of July 13th, 2009, an intrepid team of journalists, unusual voices, first wave bloggers, and second wave bloggers will congregate on these pages to discuss Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. We will be serializing our discussion over the course of that week and, as always, your feedback is welcome in the comments.

You might remember Ellen Ruppel Shell’s previous book, The Hungry Gene, which explored the topic of obesity from numerous angles. Shell’s latest book tackles the subject of discount culture and its impact upon American life. Yes, we’ve all been cheap bastards at some point in our lives. And the present economy has certainly forced many of us to bargain hunt. But what’s the impact of our decisions? And are there ethical ways to approach discount culture?

With our forthcoming mix of thoughts, feelings, and anecdotes, we hope to investigate some of these questions and possibly get lost in a few new ones. Feel free to tag along during the week of July 13th! The talk will indeed be Cheap!

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The Geeks

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The geeks in the upstairs apartment moved out. I called them the geeks because I always heard the guy drilling holes into the walls at odd hours — the working theory being that he was constructing some homemade dungeon. I once heard the Nazi theme from Day of Defeat booming through his speakers, the battle sounds rattling through that thin partition between ceiling and floor. The first geek — a dark-haired, t-shirt wearing dude around thirty — was lonely. There were prospective dates, but enough disparate intervals between women for any armchair sleuth to adduce that he never really made it past one or two invites up to the apartment. But I cheered him on. Even if I didn’t really know him aside from quiet acknowledgments in the elevator.

But eventually he got lucky and he found someone who understood him. And I was very happy for him! And she was very loud when they rattled the floorboards, sounding like a soprano just getting warmed up, the two of them going at it with the stamina of ten stallions. And he stopped playing first-person shooters. He was thankfully into first-person plural now, even if it was all quite loud. They always started around one in the morning. And he would laugh long and hard just after he came. And they would sometimes make funny childish sounds together that would reverberate through the partition.

I realize that all this sounds a bit creepy and vaguely invasive. There’s no way to convey the truth of this casual eavesdropping and come away innocent and unscathed. I fully expect some authority for decency or morality to knock on the door if my account should make the rounds. I can only say that I didn’t go out of my way to overhear these things, nor did I spend an unhealthy amount of time dwelling upon all this. But you must understand. It’s a bit difficult to ignore neighbors having sex. And you can’t exactly introduce yourself. Because your neighbors know they’re being quite loud. And you can’t exactly knock on their door with baked cookies and a bottle of scotch and say, “Hi there! I just love the way you fuck your girlfriend, and I thought maybe we might have a mixer!” This is something we never discuss in American culture. But maybe we should. Of course, if you opened up an honest dialogue with your neighbor, any reasonable person would beat the hell out of you or ensure that you spend the rest of your life on some predatory database.

They soon spent a good deal of time together. The nightly thumping became as regular as the gunshots that sometimes stirred us out of bed at three in the morning. And then the sounds stopped. They weren’t always there. Then they were. And then they were moving out to a new love shack. An ugly couch made its way to the first floor. It was initially accompanied by a note, beseeching tenants not to take it. Then the note disappeared. Presumably, the girl geek had talked some decorative sense into the guy geek. It truly was an ugly couch. So ugly and brown that nobody in the building wanted it. The couch was found outside a week later, taking hits from the rain. For all I knew, the geeks had gone at it on that couch. Maybe there was a time in which they had valued the couch. Perhaps this was furniture designed only for lost weekends.

But when the couch was gone, I knew that the geeks were gone for good. That regular libidinous rhythm had permanently disappeared. And I wondered what percussive effects might serve in lieu. Yes, time marches on. People change and move. The geeks may now be tormenting or delighting some other neighbor. But we were the neighbors designated to hear their grunts and moans! No more.

I certainly have regrets about this peripheral “relationship” with my neighbors. Why didn’t I use a decibel meter to get a precise reading of their sounds? I’m fairly confident that they defied a few noise ordinances, and good for them. Why didn’t I find out what the drilling was all about? Why didn’t I use a little know-how myself to spy through the ceiling? We cross into the unethical. And answering these questions would have taken away from some of the mystery.

Thus, I think it’s important for us not to discount the neighbors who fuck each other blue. These geeks, without even knowing it, spawned enigma and curiosity from their downstairs neighbors. And that, I would argue, is a positive achievement for the human race.

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Family Disgrace

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To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, nobody can make you feel inauthentic without your consent. And the phony who uttered the onerous words recorded by the good and kind Don Linn should be whacked in the kneecaps. Just so the phony can decide whether or not there is indeed a metric that can be applied while excruciating pain shoots through legs I realize that these are strong words, but they are necessary ones, I think. If you cannot feel and you wish to advocate emotional capitulation, then you have no business being an expert or speaking before a crowd. For there is no strategy for living. Life simply doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of taking in and emitting anthracite deposits of objective data. If you really need some hokey maxim to start with, life is what happens when you make other plans. But why settle for Werner Erhard-like comforts? If you can pretend that you know what you’re doing and you can improvise around the mad anarchy on your own terms and truly appreciate other people in the process, then you’ll probably get a lot farther than those foolishly pursuing “the metrics to assess whether you are successful.” Twitter can neither help you live better nor transform you into a better person. Like any helpful tool, it can enhance your life and direct you to the right people and permit you to exchange sound ideas and giddy concepts with people who are excited. But it is no replacement for real life. Nor is it landscape to be carved up by the avaricious marketing people. Ten conferences or twenty boot camps couldn’t possibly tell you how to stick with a vision and connect with others who have similar ambitions. Twitter, Facebook, Augmented Reality, and the flashiest technological tool shooting off the tip of your tongue can’t possibly help you understand why that person across from you is lighting up and smiling and getting excited. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to summon forth that same energy in yourself, find common ground, and make that passion happen, and make the passion of others happen. If Twitter can get you there, that’s fantastic. But what are you saying to the world when you tint your Twitter photo green instead of summoning up an original thought about Iran? How authentic — whether strategically authentic or genuinely authentic — are you when you’re so determined to run with the herd?

On a lighter (and possibly more disgraceful) note, here’s another interview I did with the good Austin Allen of The Abbeville Manual of Style. I do have a plan to save the publishing industry and it involves loganberry mint juleps.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #293.

Guy Maddin is most recently the author of My Winnipeg, a book version of the film of the same name. For listeners who are fans of reading and watching films, this conversation accounts for all experiences and contains more than a few prevarications.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the veracity of his topography.

Guest: Guy Maddin

Subjects Discussed: Whether living in Winnipeg for many year makes one an expert of Winnipeg, expertise and confused feelings, the importance of not straying from your methods, pleasant feelings and hellish depictions of Winnipeg, the strength one obtains from retellings of Icelandic sagas, the difficulties of laughing at smallpox plagues, “My Winnipeg” vs. “My New York,” Marcel Dzama, artists doing their bit for Winnipeg, being murdered by a puck, Winnipeg purse-snatching, being indoors in Winnipeg, Canadians who are being unduly rattled by Americans, James Frey and the problems with American memoirs, finding the disclaimer, naked laps, getting a nude model in Winnipeg and Manhattan, quick cutting in Maddin’s films after 2000, title cards and Godard, walkout ratios in Maddin’s films, smelling the mildew in the tableau, live elements to Maddin’s films, J. Hoberman’s assessment, Maddin reading his own press, the IMDB, Internet ego searches, getting rid of obsessions, having to live with Guy Maddin the character, Darcy Fehr as the only actor to play “Guy Maddin” twice, the Seattle Guy Maddins, having an actor impersonate Guy Maddin at a Chicago event, why Guy Maddin hasn’t played himself, whether or not Darcy Fehr is Maddin’s Jean-Pierre Léaud, similarities between Brand Upon the Brain‘s Sullivan Brown and Antoine Doniel, redacted dialogue in My Winnipeg, Ann Savage, the OCD quality that Winnipeggers have, recurring handshakes, ramming the audience over the head, editing lessons learned from Cowards Bend the Knee, title cards, actors who performed scenes in several different languages in the early sound era, Maddin’s shift from storyboards to spontaneity, editing speed and cramming ideas, good actors vs. bad actors, George Toles’s dialogue, the official report on the Guy Maddin Casting Couch, hockey locker rooms, chorizo metaphors, walking and coming up with ideas, Guy Debord, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, how walking gives you courage, the advantages of sleeping in hallways and on ladders, time travel and peregrinations, the grim nature of the future, and not being a great planner.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

mwCorrespondent: If I were to say My New York, you would look at me and declare me the world’s ultimate narcissist….

Maddin: Yeah.

Correspondent: …and yet, when you say My Winnipeg, you can get away with that. And I think that you have a little bit of advantage being in Winnipeg and being able to say that. I really wish that I could say My New York, but I would just be looked at as if I had the biggest head in the world.

Maddin: Well, so many people have done New York too.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Maddin: I’ve got the advantage of just being among a small handful of artists doing it. The artist — the now New York-based artist — Marcel Dzama from Winnipeg has been doing Winnipeg quite a bit. I was out for drinks with him last night and we were chatting about how we’re doing our little bit to keep Winnipeg on the map. But things happen there on their own. They’re always kind of remote outpost kind of things. And stark and grizzly things. You know, someone murdered by a puck. Or Susan Sarandon’s jewel theft turned into a disembowelment. And I don’t know, a bus riding decapitation. Most recently, I just returned to Winnipeg for a couple days and the first story I read in the paper was about a gang of teenage girls who roam the streets and hack with a hatchet the purse strings of women walking around near them. One purse snatching was foiled by the purse holder flinging a cup of molten hot Tim Hortons coffee in the assailant’s face. I don’t know. There’s just this kind of stuff going on all the time. And obviously, it’s not unique to Winnipeg. But it seems like the headlines are being written by a 19th century translator of Brothers Grimm stories half the time.

Correspondent: Or perhaps some of the people who commit these crimes are doing so to alleviate the intense indoorsdom of being in Winnipeg six months of the year.

Maddin: Yeah, exactly. Cabin fever. It’s that kind of year. And they’re just writing their own legends. We don’t really — Canadians don’t really talk about their history. They don’t really boil down legends or folk tales the way every other country does. Possibly because we’ve been dwarfed so badly — rattled so badly by our presence right next to America.

Correspondent: I’m sorry about that. Really.

Maddin: No, no, no, no. It’s kind of good.

Correspondent: You don’t deserve it. There’s a lot of great things that come out of Canada.

Maddin: No, no. Whatever. You know, my temperament is part of that whole thing. And I kind of like it. I kind of like feeling like when you roll over, I should look out.

BSS #293: Guy Maddin (Download MP3)

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Review: Dead Snow (2009)

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Earlier this year, numerous enthusiasts exploded in their pants over a movie that had not yet snagged American distribution. If you were among the throbbing throng to take in the trailer — yet another eyeball-attracting rite encouraged by the Internet’s discouragement of cultural apostasy — you may very well have shouted, “HOLY SHIT! NAZI ZOMBIES! WELL, PINCH MY EARS AND CALL ME A JELLY DONUT! I MUST SEE THIS MOVIE! I MEAN, IT EVEN HAS FUCKING SUBTITLES!” It was the geek equivalent of a thirteen-year-old boy wrestling with a nervous urge to jump any girl in the room, settling instead for the Oui centerfold that some trucker had left behind in a public restroom.

In hindsight, it was probably the subtitles that seduced us. Subtitles, on the whole, suggest rueful miscommunication or a strangeness extant only because we don’t speak the language. And with subtitles applied to a high concept like undead Einsatzgruppen, we conveniently forget the trash cinema innovators who came before. Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow is not the first movie to feature Nazi zombies. There was 1977′s Shock Waves, which featured Peter Cushing as a Nazi scientist hoarding SS zombies on a boat. Before that, there was 1966′s The Frozen Dead, which involved Dana Andrews holding onto the heads of Nazi war criminals alive to attach upon ripe bodies for a new Third Reich. (I find it someone surprising that Dana Andrews, a white bread actor who had all the appeal of stale toast, was one of the involved parties. This is a bit like expecting Tom Hanks to be the first Hollywood actor to penetrate an orifice in a Hollywood film.)

While filmmaker Tommy Wirkola includes literal and visual nods to the first two Evil Dead films, April Fool’s Day, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Braindead (aka Dead Alive), and The Simpsons, don’t let these flagrant pop cultural references fool you. Wirkola has robbed from the mausoleum of horror movies that passed on in 1981: Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake (undead Nazis assaulting isolated setting, emerging here from the snow instead of a lake) and Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (army of Nazi zombies guarding gold).

Which is not to say that Dead Snow is bad. While the zombies arrive much later than they probably should and the early character development doesn’t quite compensate for the reduced early gore, there is ample intestine ripping and even a few funny lines. “We should have gone to the beach like I told you,” says someone just after the kids start dying. This time, the kids who meet Muhammad at the mountain cabin are medical students — a smart creative decision permitting the characters to take on death and hack off limbs without flinching or freezing up. (One character even stitches up his own neck.) There’s great potential in having more educated youngsters stand in for the usual libertine losers. Alas, the interesting early chatter of how to use spit to escape an avalanche subsides to the accustomed lackluster scenarios.

This is a movie that knows it’s a retread — a dependable retread, but a retread nonetheless. The kid dusting off the mountain cabin kitchen at the beginning could very well be Wirkola himself. The cabin resembles the Evil Dead cabin. Wirkola even mimics Sam Raimi’s chainsaw montage from Evil Dead II (minus the “Groovy”). And it’s often quite frustrating that these characters are developed through Hollywood references instead of human behavior. One wonders if Wirkola even understands young people. These kids actually complain about playing co-ed Twister, failing to consider the libidinous possibilities. Why play Twister? “Because Hollywood told us that it’s so much fun.” But is that line an actual joke or contempt? The movie’s token film geek, Erlend, wears a Braindead t-shirt throughout and is commanded by his peers to stop talking about movies for an hour. But at least he gets lucky in an outhouse. The Seth Rogen archetype has made its way to Norway.

Here is a movie that’s skillful enough to have someone dangling over a cliff with an intestine serving as a rope, but that doesn’t have the instincts to make any of its characters Jewish. (And wouldn’t that present some interesting conflict?) Yes, we do briefly see the remnants of a Nazi lair. And the Nazi zombie leader (named Herzog, perhaps in deference to the filmmaker now gutting Abel Ferrara) does order his soldiers to “arise” from the snow. But wouldn’t these zombies be infinitely more interesting if they tried to mimic behavior from World War II? It’s too easy to have the zombies simply hunt down these kids for gold. This movie might have had real guts — pun fully intended — if these Nazis attempted to carry out the Final Solution.

Of course, any horror movie that stops for a moment of Norwegian hospitality — with coffee unappreciated by the guest — can’t be entirely discounted. Wirkola himself is a hospitable filmmaker and he’s off to a good start. It’s just too bad that he isn’t nearly as cavalier as Don Edmonds — the wild director of the first two Ilsa films who passed away only a few weeks ago. With such audience-friendly horror as Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell seen in theaters in the past six months, Wirkola is going to have to work harder to make schlock horror fun and dangerous again.

Bubbles: A Consideration

On June 12, 2009, I attended a bubble battle in New York. But the event wasn’t really a battle — at least not in the traditional sense. Hundred of people who didn’t know each other gathered in Times Square to blow bubbles. It seemed like such a simple act, but it turned out to be so much more. And I hope that the above film, “Bubbles: A Consideration,” gives anyone who wasn’t able to attend a sense of the possibilities.

BEA 2009: The Truth About Book Piracy

At BookExpo America, Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield entered into a lengthy conversation with Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media. And it became necessary to capture their quasi-caffeinated colloquy for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I had seen O’Leary earlier in the year at the “Challenging Notions of Free” panel at Tools of Change, along with O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum and Random House’s director of business development Chelsea Vaughan. O’Reilly and Random House had agreed to participate in a study hoping to pinpoint the effects of P2P distribution — namely, the impact of digital books, both in pirated and legitimate form, on print book sales. And they were standing in a conference room in February to present Magellan’s results to the public.

The results were a bit surprising. According to O’Leary’s subsequent report, “Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales,” book piracy wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as some had suggested. While O’Leary’s report had only O’Reilly and Random House as participants, it appeared that some of the publishers’ fears about piracy were unsubstantiated. Only eight frontlist titles published by O’Reilly in 2008 could be located as torrent files. When these books did become available as torrents, the torrents were uploaded to the Internet far later than expected: some 20 weeks after publication date on average. Furthermore, for the titles available as torrents, on average, sales were 6.5% higher for these books during the four weeks after they were uploaded.

Despite the braying of New York Times guest bloggers, book piracy was hardly the Manichean scenario that some of the DRM advocates had implied. And the chances of Stephen King and Toni Morrison riding on motorcycles appeared to be unlikely. In his report, O’Leary suggested “a less binary model to evaluate the use of free” — one doing away with the parallel experiences from music and movies and accounting for tangible interface realities.

But before the “information must be free” acolytes begin offering a Nelson-like “Ha Ha,” it’s important to note that this isn’t a scenario in which a partisan can dance a jig jig one way or another. O’Leary is pointing out quite rightly that both publishers and open source advocates are making statements about piracy without specific correlative data to draw from. O’Leary’s results are a great step forward, but with Amazon offering a new version of the Kindle seemingly every two months and publishers remaining understandably mum about sales data, it isn’t exactly possible to locate the theory of everything.

In the interview, O’Leary pointed out that not only were there differences in book piracy between fiction and O’Reilly books, but even within specific types of fiction. And getting publishers to participate in ongoing efforts to study this unexamined issue might allow reliable correlations to be formed. O’Leary also alluded to additional studies conducted by John Hilton that involved studying the effect of free digital books on print sales. Hilton was surprised to learn that Tor Books gave 24 of its books away, but saw 20 of the titles with decreasing sales. Random House’s ebook experiments, by contrast, had seen increased print sales for all four titles that it had used for the experiment. But was it the type of books? The specific titles? The way the free ebooks were introduced?

“Certainly when you see that big a swing, you want to look at the type of book or the type of genre or the type of test,” said O’Leary. “I mean, keep in mind that not all digital tests are the same. If you’re using digital content on the first book in a science fiction series to promote the tenth book, it’s different from using digital content to promote the current book. So you want to capture all those things and then start to mix and match over time.”

But with only O’Reilly and Random House willing to use the machines in O’Leary’s laundry room, one wonders if anyone can iron out all the wrinkles.

The Mad Scientist

This post was intended to be a mashup of sentences from posts I’ve had sitting in draft form over the last month. But as I got to assembling it — or, more accurately, not assembling it — I found myself free associating and thinking about silly things. In fact, I’m writing this sentence after I have written the two paragraphs that follow this one. The first sentence read differently and was originally attached to the beginning of the next paragraph, before I just rolled in with my effrontery and cut the paragraph in two and started typing these sentences. Thus, this paragraph represents an attempt to anchor the newer and entirely unintended context of what I had certainly not planned. The sun is now rising. There are delightful birds outside chirping pleasantries. And I’m getting the sense that it’s going to be a pretty delightful day. It always helps to remain positive, particularly when you are trying to survive doing something without value in this present economy.

The original purpose of this post, concerning the mashup and now long transmuted, can be summed up as followed (this paragraph is, incidentally, largely unaltered from the post’s original purpose): I don’t know if I’ll actually complete any of these posts, but it seemed a pity to let the posts languish. After all, if the posts represent entities with independent feelings, I must be a very cruel person indeed to leave the posts unfinished. And now it occurs to me that I am probably being crueler by opening up various draft posts, piercing into the body with an unwashed scalpel, and flinging the guts around the laboratory. The hell of it is that I don’t have any mad scientist hair right now, much less a white coat. And now I am feeling a little uncomfortable. Because I now realize that the horror film image of a mad scientist in a white coast with fresh blood stains makes me quite giddy. I have always loved artificial blood and guts and was a Fangoria reader back in the day, but I have always been a bit queasy around real blood. But are my very real feelings artificial because they are now bound in text? There is clearly a selection process at work here. Does any author hold back on 98% of her real feelings? And if we are getting only 2% of an author’s real feelings within the text, then are we really feeling with the author? Or are we feeling an artificial construct? Is literature nothing more than a highbrow version of some teenage girl pinning up a BOP pinup of the Jonas Brothers in her bedroom? And is this, in turn, why so many literary snobs are reluctant to express enthusiasm about genre? That the truth might come out? That their strong feelings about literature are really just artificial?

Anyway, this is no ordinary laboratory. People are reading this site. It is, in some sense, a performance for the public. The British are better about referring to the operating room as a theater, but I’m now wondering what it says about me to get so excited about flinging sentences around and having no problem doing this in a public setting. (Of course, now that this post has become about something else and I haven’t actually assembled the sentences together, I may be able to recuse myself from culpability. Except that I had the original impulse to do this. My original purpose was to disrupt and disturb unformed textual entities and do so in a public setting with little concern for how these entities felt. We grant corporations the same legal rights as individuals and any good liberal gets himself worked up in a tizzy over the duplicity. But why don’t we afford an essay the same emotional rights as a person?)

The sun has risen. The birds have stopped chirping. She rests — hopefully asleep — in the next room. Those feelings are all very real to me, but are they real to you as I write these sentences? Or do you want me to shut up now? These are perfectly reasonable questions. This is the problem with literature. You can recognize that there’s another person with feelings behind the sentences, but you are simultaneously given open license to slam and dissect those sentences and otherwise declare something wretched or wonderful. There’s something inherently duplicitous in that, but there’s also something liberating. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that has me so excited about the mad scientist with the white coat and the blood. I can celebrate the mad scientist without judging the person who created the mad scientist. Because I am lost in the mad scientist’s narrative. It’s safe to say that I will probably never run into a mad scientist with a white coat stained with blood. But some might wish to judge my excitement for the mad scientist or even the sanity of the author who came up with it.

This little essay was finished up around 6:08 AM, on June 11, 2009. The word count now stands at 830 words. I’m now being badgered by a window that informs me that WordPress 2.8 is available. These are simple mechanics. Cold facts. But can we get excited about them? Why not? The reader hostile to the seemingly mundane hasn’t considered the magic. The time and word count are just as valid as the mad scientist, and it’s up to us to keep the whole operation exciting. Even as observers watch us fling the guts around.

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An Interview with Edward Champion

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atstartt the end of the end of May, edrants.com announced the appointment of its American editor Edward Champion to the role of acting editor. Up until this point in time, it had never occurred to us to have American editors, acting editors, or indeed editors of any type. There was just one guy at the helm named Ed. Perhaps his first name is actually “Editor.” But since certain literary magazines have seen so many people leaving, resigning, and otherwise exiting the doors with a banker’s box of literary belongings, it seemed necessary for us to apply a needless degree of self-importance to this website. Champion came to edrants.com after working in various office jobs and has been with the website since December 2004. During that time he has interviewed over 300 authors and written for numerous newspapers. He hopes to continue to boast about himself because he’s under the false impression that community comes naturally through relentless self-absorption. Ergo, this interview, which doesn’t carry a byline but appears on the very website that Champion claims is editorially independent! edrants.com recently caught up with Champion to talk abut his background, his inspirations and future issues posts of edrants.com.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? What’s your background?

I was born in California, and was beaten regularly by my parents. I tried to get a job delivering newspapers, but was told that John Freeman was delivering all the papers in the neighborhood. And since Freeman wouldn’t give up a few blocks, I was forced to work in a greasy diner, where the doors were locked until midnight and I was forced to hitch rides to and from work by an unpleasant busboy named Linus, who demanded the occasional hand job. The consequences of these hand jobs can be seen in the present cutbacks in newspaper book review sections. John Freeman tried to save them, but even he couldn’t. And yet he gets a silly promotion and an Observer article, and I’m trying to string together checks to pay the rent. I’m developing an ego. This worries me.

What excites you most about edrants.com?

The celebration of myself. The opportunity to take smug photos of myself with books and to pretend that my foldout chair is something more than it really is because there are books stacked on top of it.

The chance to do this now is also a great privilege. Because I’m white and I’m male. I don’t believe there’s a lack of good writing in our world, but I do believe that we should only publish boring suburban fiction. The kind of soporific stuff you see in the New Yorker, but that permits people to curd the spasms of their dismay into a balled up Kleenex. As a cultural website that is read internationally, edrants.com is in a unique position to be found by desperate men at 3:23 AM. The men will get pissed off that they didn’t find pornography and they will begin sending me death threats by email. It’s what our readers expect of us. I hope you don’t mind me using the first person plural.

Not at all.

Good. I was beginning to get worried. I really needed some time to develop some kind of narcissistic personality disorder.

How do you think edrants.com can be improved?

It’s absolutely perfect the way it is, you ungrateful bastard! We don’t live in an Anglo-American world anymore, except we do. Because I’m the Acting Editor of edrants.com and John Freeman is the Acting Editor of Granta. You need to have white bread elitists in power who pretend that they really care. We need to do a better job of pretending that we’re actually reading writers who aren’t white. And that means name-dropping a continent or two, rather than a country.

In what direction will you take edrants.com as Acting Editor?

We need to write more long profiles of Edward Champion. We need more videos of Champion in bathtubs with naked women. If YouTube won’t post these videos, then surely YouPorn will. We’re not a website really, but a cultural space and — excuse me, just sifting through the document the marketing people gave me — and, yes! A cultural space where anything can happen.

Will edrants.com continue to be themed?

Well, it was never really themed to begin with. I don’t know where you’re getting these questions from. We are averse to themes because they remind us of too many themed office parties in which a lot of miserable people sat around drinking cheap merlot in red paper cups under a pinata for a Cinco de Mayo-themed party. Nevertheless, the world needs more themes. We need themes so that people can be reminded of what they already know instead of actually challenging their perceptions.

Every now and then, though, we’ll have no theme. Until that crazy Swedish bitch calls me to London and asks me what the hell I’m doing with her money. Then I’ll sheepishly give you an edrants.com with themes attached.

Bad Neighbors

Walter and Patty Melted were the young products of Franzen Hill — the first dreadful characters to spit out of the misanthropic novelist’s mind since the old heart of The Twenty-Seventh City had fallen on hard times two decades earlier. The Melteds hadn’t done anything to that bitter elitist hillock in Manhattan, except have the misfortune to run into it and kill themselves for ten years while the ultramontane deities renovated them. Early on, some very determined blogger torched the shit monster and did everything except beat this sad lifeless soil to a pulp so that he could drink Pabst Blue Ribbon with Howard Junker and cook up a few hot dogs with some of the boys at the raucous rooftop party that Jonathan, that sour whiny motherfucker with earplugs permanently stuck inside his hirsute ears, would never attend. “Hey, you guys, you know what?” Jonathan asked on behalf of the Melteds, “you are low-class people who will never understand my literary genius.” He saw Oprah — or was it Oona? — on a bigass tv set and wanted to destroy this pox upon pop culture that his dainty toes would never touch. The Melteds hung down their heads, wondering why they had to be attached to this utterly incurious novelist and outright wanker. Behind the Melteds you could see the glazed Galassi making book-encumbered demands of book-encumbered novelists who forgot just what lively writing was all about; ahead of him, an afternoon of George Michael on radio, Freedom, an important title for an important man who had sideswiped Gaddis, taking his title and then dissing his last two books while the great Bill G was safely packed away into his maggot feeding plot, and then “Goodnight Fuck,” then Zinfandel, not that low-class populist Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Melteds knew that Gawker reporters would be there. Jonathan knew that he was a gasbag that just couldn’t stop expanding over the itchy and queasy expanse of Franzen Hill.

In the earliest years, when you could still remember getting your fingers greasy without feeling self-conscious or ashamed of the remainder of those middling Missouri roots, the collective task at Franzen Hill was to relearn certain joys about life that everybody else seemed to experience, but that eluded the sourpuss gestalt, like how to find some moment to smile at over the course of a 72-hour period, and how to actually enjoy some sight without standing on the edge of Central Park with a stick up your ass, and how to understand that there was actually a universe that extended beyond the island of Manhattan, and how to not write needlessly long sentences with laundry list clauses and pretend that you had something significant to say. Did they print this silly shit because it shot from the soulless steam stacks atop Franzen Hill? Did they even check the manifest anymore? Who needed to? The piece — whether story or excerpt from forthcoming novel — would give phony comfort to New Yorker readers. Franzen Hill was a brand name. One as dependable as Nike, Pepsi-Cola, and Microsoft.

For all existential queries and verisimilitudinous volts, Patty Melted was a resource, a dried up construct whom Jonathan the novelist could desperately look to for the answers. A carrier of sociocultural pollen, if only the author had anything sociocultural to really draw from. She would have to remain a spent capsule, a sarcophagal bee that never talked back and stung the author, and only the author, when provoked.

Make no mistake: this was a disease, a cancer that would cause the unthinking literary acolytes to praise Franzen Hill’s physical dimensions without considering the pustules and sputum enervating the whole. Those flabby Bolanoites holed up in garrets still actually believed that they could bust shit up from the inside when they were part of the unthinking market forces. The rush of Franzen Hill would spread with the thwacks of magazines hitting doorsteps and newsstands, and continue with the reverberating dings from email clients. Endless forwarding, some printing off of the story for the subway, the sense that Franzen Hill was only the finest. Never mind what shit the story was. It appeared in The New Yorker!

The Melteds still knew that Everest towered over Franzen Hill.

“It’s a wonder,” Walter Melted remarked to Patty afterward, “that this sad and contemptuous man is even still writing.”

Patty shook her head. “I don’t think he’s figured out how to love anything.”

knightsround

Roundtable Discussion Coming in July

knightsround

It came together at the last minute, but this website is going to be featuring a roundtable discussion during the week of July 8, 2009. For those readers who have enjoyed our previous roundtable discussions of Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, Eric Kraft’s Flying, and various other books, this casual but thoughtful symposium in July will operate along similar lines.

I cannot reveal the book at this time. But I can tell you that the book is nonfiction and deals with a significant issue — something that all of us deal with, but many of us take for granted. I can also tell you that the letters P, H, and C are in the book’s title, and that the book cover features an icon that reminds me of a regrettable period in my life approximately fifteen years ago in which I believed, in all seriousness, that a Franklin Planner was a pretty good idea.

I should have more details about the book (and the topic) in question when we get closer to pub date. And we’ll reveal the book early enough so that those wishing to follow along.

I should also note that I’m hoping to increase the frequency of roundtable discussions in the future. More on these many developments later!

BEA 2009: The Cool-Er Reader

As widely reported over the past week, BookExpo America featured several $249 e-readers. And while I certainly observed many people salivating over e-readers as a whole, a good deal of drool congealed around the edges of Interead’s Cool-Er Reader. Teleread’s Paul Biba reported that the Cool-Er is “very light and feels good on the hand.” (The Interread people did not allow me to corroborate Mr. Biba’s findings. While I don’t desire to undermine Mr. Biba’s understandable excitement, I would not be doing my duty if I didn’t point out that the same words might be said of a freshly washed and folded beach towel.) Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield reported that the Cool-Er people were very defensive when their device was compared with other e-readers. And I suppose that companies are indeed prone to getting a little defensive when are greeted with legitimate questions instead of marketing opportunities.

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, I was more or less off-duty and somewhat hungover. I had devoted the morning to baking cookies and alotted the afternoon to my theatrical appearance at the Firebrand blogger signing. Under such conditions, the only apparel you can really wear is a Cocaine Fiends t-shirt. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to check the Cool-Er Reader out for myself. I talked with marketing director Phil Wood and did my best to separate the booth’s beach imagery from all the hype.